How do I hold a virtual networking session?

Freeform networking with a glass of wine in one hand and tasty snacks in the other is not the easiest thing to replicate via video conferencing.

The reason why in-person networking is so difficult to bring on line is serendipity. People meet after overhearing a snippet of interesting conversation, or seeing an interesting app or solution that another person is showing someone else. A lot of times, people introduce their friends to others in their circle, thus melding and expanding people’s networks. This is very difficult to replicate on line.

Having said that, we can reap some of the benefits of in-person networking in a virtual format by hosting an open meeting on line with large audiences. There are some precedences. For example, Rachel Hentsch, MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp alumna, has hosted #24hours#24steps, a 24 hour virtual event for participants all over the world, exclusively on line. Venture Cafe Cambridge is hosting virtual cafes. Startup Boston has started organizing virtual founder’s happy hours.

When there is a will, there is a way. Following are some truly creative ideas for virtual networking events that I have overheard in the past few days. I cannot wait to try them out.

  • Organize an event with a large number of participants. Create a lot of breakout rooms in advance. Start out in the “big room”, explain the rules – then start randomly assigning 3-5 people into a breakout room. Leave them there for 5-10 minutes – then switch them up randomly in a new room with different people. Rinse and repeat.
  • Set up open virtual rooms with themes, and allow anybody with the link to “walk in” and have a conversation with others in the “room”
  • Set up a virtual “water cooler” or “coffee machine” to be “open for business” for the same hours the water cooler would be open for business – and let people wander in and out and have conversations.

We can do ad-hoc networking and relationship building on line. We just need to accept that it will be a different experience, with different food and drink. So long as our expectations are aligned with what the virtual experience offers, we can make this work.


Adapted from a blog post titled "Leading a virtual entrepreneurial team – Part 4. Hosting virtual events" by  Elaine Chen

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